When I was first trying to find the Church of St. Sergius of Radonezh in Stockholm, it took me a lot of time to locate it: for some reason I thought that the parish must be situated somewhere in the crypt of the Lutheran Church of St. Mary Magdalene. It is this Lutheran church, situated at Bellmansgatan Street, that provides space for the Russian parish for worship. It turned out that the only community of the Moscow Patriarchate in the capital of Sweden leases a small room in a building dozens yards away from this huge Protestant edifice. It is easy for a stranger to get lost, all the more so because this tiny church is dominated by a residential building towering over it.
Services at the Church of St. Sergius are warm and filled with the atmosphere of prayer. But it can be hard on Sundays and major feasts—the room is very small, there are many worshippers, and it can be crowded and stifling inside. Sometimes services last longer than usual because its rector, Archpriest Vitaly Babushin, has to hear the confessions of the whole congregation—and he often has to serve alone; though he is sometimes assisted by an unpaid priest, Fr. Alexander Piskunov.
An auxiliary outbuilding of the Protestant church, a part of which is leased by St. Sergius Church. There is a fundraising program to build or obtain a church building for the parish. Photo by Arkady Riabichenko.
“Church life counterbalances and harmonizes everything, and sets everything in its right place”
Fr. Vitaly has lived in Stockholm for nine years now. He was sent to Sweden after he had served in one of the parishes of the Noginsk district near Moscow for many years. He became the third rector of St. Sergius Church after Priests Alexander Piskunov and Vladimir Alexandrov.
—I was born in the town of Elektrostal near Moscow. In my youth I dreamed of becoming a doctor, so I entered a medical college after school. And my studies at college coincided with my integration into the Church life. My desire to become a priest prevailed over the desire to become a doctor (though any priest knows that these two kinds of activity are special and holy by nature and even somewhat interwoven). After graduating from the medical college, in the early 1990s I enrolled in the Moscow Diocesan Theological College [it was transformed into the Kolomna Theological Seminary in 1996.—Trans.], and then in St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Institute [now St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of Humanities.—Trans.]. From there I later transferred to what is now St. John the Theologian Russian Orthodox University (the Department of Patristic and Biblical Studies). I studied ancient languages and patristics there, and a year after graduation in 2001 I was ordained a priest. From that time on I served at St. Sergius Church in the Novosergievo village of the Noginsk district permanently right until my arrival in Sweden in December 2010.
—Fr. Vitaly, after serving near Moscow for over eight years you ended up in a foreign country, which is certainly very different from Russian regions. As far as I understand, your transfer to Stockholm was your first experience of priestly ministry abroad. What did you find most impressive, significant and memorable in parish life, relations with the parishioners and life in a foreign country in general?
—In my rural parish near Moscow people were simple, mostly peasants. Elderly parishioners predominated, though there were many young people too. These were simple people who were interested in contributing to the common cause; they felt their personal responsibility for the fate of the parish, the state of the parish property, and the priest’s life conditions. I would say there was no general concern in the common cause at the Swedish parish. Though people are different everywhere—perhaps I was just lucky enough to have such a good parish in Novosergievo.
I should also note that I was not impressed by Sweden and found it a very “foreign” country. I felt this as I walked around the city, looking at its churches, buildings, and shops. But once I had come here, to St. Sergius Church, my soul felt it was in its right place. Because when we are in church, we are at home. In fact, if you and your family have ended up abroad and you are not going back home tomorrow, it means that you are beginning a new life. It is neither a business trip, nor a vacation, nor a pilgrimage; it is your life here. People live everywhere, including Russian people, Church people. As soon as you step inside this church, you feel divine grace and the real presence of St. Sergius. Church life counterbalances, harmonizes everything, and sets everything in its right place.
The Swedish parenting model: the children are always right
—You came to Stockholm with your family and children. Have you had difficulty bringing up your children here? After all, you found yourselves in one of the most liberal countries of Europe.
—Yes, we came here with three children, and now we already have four. The oldest child is preparing for university, and the youngest one will be a first grader soon. We have not had any critical problems partly because our children have attended the school attached to the Russian Embassy, remaining outside the Swedish mainstream educational system. And our circle of acquaintances mainly consists of Russian-speaking and Orthodox people, and most Swedes we keep in touch with are also Orthodox.
I also hold that the main educational component is the family. If we as a family become quite immune to the detrimental influences of this world, then whatever our children may face in their lives, they always have clear moral and spiritual guidelines. That is why they feel good everywhere: they are able to resist all negative influences and set their priorities right.
—But few parents can send their children to schools attached to an embassy. Let us try and view this situation from the perspective of those who don’t have this opportunity. Have your parishioners ever complained that Swedish schools have a strong negative effect on children, that probably the parents and even (to some degree) the Church can do nothing to oppose this?
—Yes, unfortunately, it is not a rarity; rather, it is a regular occurrence. That is why we have tried to avoid Swedish schools, at least until our children would be able to evaluate things properly on their own. This danger exists even now. If they were to close the Russian school and tell us to transfer to a Swedish one, then we would surely encounter some influences of this world. It is something our parishioners—whose children are involved in the Swedish educational system from the nursery and kindergarten on—really have to face. Results can be deplorable: children begin to boss their parents around, feeling their power, while parents are afraid to contradict them.
Of course, our Orthodox parents who themselves were brought up in the Russian Orthodox environment still have an influence on their children and manage to guide them in the right path somehow. As for local residents, Swedes, they pay little or no attention to the upbringing of children. For some time they feed their little ones, provide clothes for them and give them money, but then they give complete control over their children to schools or some outside specialists who use only certain methods and literature. And if their manual reads that “children are always right”, then it is so and children begin to dictate the rules to adults. For example, parents can be made answerable for the fact that their child doesn’t have a second iPhone or something like that (if the children want it and their parents’ salary allows them to buy it). We are unaccustomed to such things.
—Therefore, if the parents didn’t buy anything for their child, he or she will complain, and child care authorities will interfere?
—It is quite possible. There is a service in each preschool and school institution, and their staff monitor “the unpleasant problems” of every child. They first “give guidance” to children and then to their parents. As a rule, parents agree with everything because they have no alternatives. These services may well announce: “We are sorry, but, in our view, your child does not want to live with you, and you can only be parents conditionally.” Under these circumstances some Orthodox Swedes leave the country.
—Do such things really happen?
—Yes, because they cannot live here as Orthodox. They fear for their children and grandchildren because of this control system. You can try and steer clear of these things and you may never be affected. But some are affected very seriously, so people are fleeing, being unable to oppose this system.
The Swedes and Orthodoxy
Unfortunately, Orthodoxy in Sweden is not as widespread and developed as it is in such countries as France and Italy. There are not many migrants from Orthodox countries here (Romanians, for instance, prefer going to countries with languages closest to Romanian and a warmer climate). There are and have been no well-known missionaries and theologians who would be willing to speak about Orthodoxy in Swedish. Only one Orthodox parish in Stockholm (the parish of the Serbian Patriarchate in honor of St. Anna of Novgorod) holds regular services in Swedish. As for St. Sergius parish, it uses very little Swedish in services.
—We did try to introduce Swedish into our services, but the parishioners met this initiative rather indifferently. After all, we are a Russian-speaking parish. Many come to us to spend some time in the center of the Russian religious culture. People wish to speak with God in the language of the Russian saints, namely in Church Slavonic.
We do have several Orthodox Swedes, but they seldom come to services together. Usually one or two of them come. I will say more: when we made small insertions in services in Swedish, one Orthodox Swede (an elderly and highly respected man) asked us not to do it. He explained his stance by the fact that Orthodox Swedes from among the local parishioners know the Russian tradition, the Russian language and Church Slavonic very well. And, in their opinion, in Swedish it is impossible to express the meaning and content of services as deeply as in Church Slavonic and with the same feeling.
—Why are Swedes converting to Orthodoxy?
—As many Swedes say, they have no choice because Orthodoxy is the only truth. True, everyone has their own path. But if a Swede becomes really interested in his faith and tradition, having failed to find Christ in his Lutheran tradition, then he begins to dig deep in history. First they search in the Catholic tradition which is clearer to the Swedish consciousness, but then they look at the Orthodox East. For example, they take to studying Greek in order to read the Gospel in the original. After that they convert to Orthodoxy. The Swedes are a multicultural nation. As a rule, if a Swede begins learning Greek seriously, he is likely to become strongly attached to the Greek Church. Swedes even travel to Mt. Athos to get baptized. They also travel to the Balkans because they feel drawn to Serbia. The situation with Russia is more complicated owing to certain political stereotypes that prevent Swedes from taking a step towards our country. Of course, there are those who are really attracted to Russia and its holy sites. They come to Russia, seeing and finding out all they need. In some cases Russia becomes their second home. For some, their second motherland, for others, even the first and only motherland.
—Where can Swedes wishing to hear Orthodox services in their native language come in Stockholm in addition to the Serbian parish?
—The Holy Transfiguration parish worships in Swedish quite often. Formerly, it belonged to the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople (the Archdiocese of Orthodox Parishes of Russian Tradition in Western Europe), but after the events in the Church life in Ukraine it moved to the Bulgarian jurisdiction. If we take the Moscow Patriarchate parishes in Sweden, we regularly serve in Swedish in the parish of Arboga and we partly use Swedish in our northern communities, namely in Umea and Lulea. Another Russian Orthodox priest, Fr. John Burlak, serves in the north.
—As far as I know, in addition to Stockholm you serve in a few more parishes…
—As I have already said, the only Swedish-speaking parish I serve in is at Arboga; and outside the capital I minister to seven parishes in all. I come once a month or even less often to celebrate the Liturgy. More often I go to the cities where there are more people and, above all, more concern for the development of parish life.
Currently, we are trying to unite all the parishes in the format of a Sunday school via Skype, inviting teachers from Russia. We have lessons twice a week, and participants from the Netherlands and Russia join us once in a while.
Here is how they think: “It is better to have a movie studio in the church than to give it to the Russian parish”
The small room where St. Sergius community gathers for worship has been at its disposal for almost twenty years. The community “outgrew” this tiny room long ago, but all attempts to find something better have been unsuccessful so far. This year the situation has become even worse: the Lutherans notified the rector that they must vacate the room by June 2020 because there are plans to set up an office there.
—Though the Lutheran Church of Sweden has been providing us with this space free of charge, we have been thinking of finding something better for years. Of course, twenty years ago the community was considerably smaller; but nevertheless both the congregation and clergy of Stockholm were of opinion that the community should have a separate building of its own, worthy of its tradition, culture and saints, including St. Sergius of Radonezh.
We tried to work on this issue. Though, when I arrived in Stockholm in 2010, it was still in the initial stage. At that moment the parish was not even officially registered.
—Were there any obstacles?
—Various impediments emerged, and some negative things were revealed. There were difficulties inside the parish and problems with external relations—for example, with the Council of Churches. These difficulties impeded the registration of the parish as a religious organization, though Swedish legislation does not hinder us in this respect. In the end we found out how everything works and our parish was registered.
—But why have you not managed to solve the problem with premises over such a long period of time?
—Procedures are very complicated in Sweden, many problems just pile up. And we were unable to find any benefactors who would agree to the terms and conditions. How does it work? Assume a benefactor comes to us and says, “Show me the area where you are planning to build a church.” We answer, “To show this area we need to make an inquiry to the municipality where we are planning our construction work.” The municipality will inform us how it will use this area. And we can wait for an answer about the plans on the use of the area (to say nothing of possible planning permission) for years! Although deadlines have recently been shortened, the procedure has not changed. Besides, before making decisions, municipalities may demand that donors show them their assets, and not everybody will agree to do this. It is a delicate matter.
—Okay, there are nuances in construction matters. But you can purchase finished premises—for example, an unused Lutheran church…
—That is not easy either. When we come to people in charge (whether it is in the administration or an estate agent) and ask them to help us find suitable premises, the fact that we are Russians, a Russian community, alarms them. True, it is an old community with a good reputation and its own history. But most of them do not care about this—they are inclined to see these things in the light of current news reports.
So municipalities are not very interested in helping us with the search for premises for a Russian Orthodox church. Of course, we write reports to them, tell them about our activities and how we plan to use the premises. But they seem not to really trust us. There was one story: A benefactor of ours who was willing to pay for the purchase of premises was patiently waiting for a decision and even held negotiations with the vendor through his assistants. In the end we almost bought the building of a Lutheran church, but at the last moment they chose to sell it to a Swede who set up a movie studio there—although according to their legislation that church building is an architectural monument and it is recommended to use it for religious purposes. But, to all appearances, the Russian Orthodox Church does not fit in with these Swedes’ idea of the Christian Church, so they would rather have a movie studio in their church. Of course, all of this makes us feel very sad.
—Is it a single instance?
—Not quite. A few years ago we found both another building for purchase and a donor. But the Swedes did not accept money from Russia. They were not satisfied with the documentation where it was stated that our benefactor’s money was from Moscow. They quickly broke off contact with us and in the end sold the building to someone else.
—It appears that the most realistic alternative for you to consider is leasing a building?
—You are right, but it is very expensive in Stockholm. If you lease a room like ours, you will pay a minimum of 3,000 euros per month. But we have not been satisfied with a room of this size for a long time. The total area should be much greater. It is practically impossible to find anything in the city center. It means we will have to move somewhere on the outskirts. We will decide on the basis of what our assistant from a consulting agency will suggest to us. We hope to find a good option within our budget. And our budget is very modest.
—Will you be financed from Moscow, by the Patriarchate?
—We have never received anything from Moscow because our parish has so far been self-reliant. I don’t know what is in store for us. I hope we will continue to be a self-sustaining community. When asked why the Patriarchate of Moscow is not supporting us I usually answer that actually we are part of the Moscow Patriarchate. We identify ourselves with Moscow, with the Russian Church. We speak of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, of St. Sergius of Radonezh. What prevents us from grasping this reasonably and searching out finances for a lease? All the more so because our parish has grown from twenty or thirty to 1,000 over twenty years. I believe that with such a number of people (though it is just the full list) we can solve many problems without outside help.
—Fr. Vitaly, do you think you were asked to vacate your current space for ideological motives as well?
—I don’t know for certain. They say the Lutherans are presently hard up financially. Protestants are steadily losing their parishioners, so they have to reconsider the ways of using their property and sometimes even sell it. Well-to-do communities are selling their property to poorer ones; in some cases they cooperate. Their churches stand empty, and I suppose they could be used somehow. For instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses have good halls, but for some reason they don’t let anything on lease. Of course, we would feel uncomfortable celebrating the Liturgy in the halls used by Jehovah’s Witnesses at the same time as them. On the other hand, space is space; but, unfortunately, not everybody lets themselves be contacted easily. Though at present we have no realistic options with a lease, and we are continuing our talks with potential lessors.
The Russian Church and others
More than a year has passed since the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church broke off Eucharistic communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Of course, outside Russia, where churches of various jurisdictions are close to each other, this decision has not passed unnoticed. In practical terms it has had far more serious implications in Europe than, say, in parishes in the Brest or Vitebsk regions (Belarus).
—Since that decision our relations with the Holy Transfiguration parish (which until recently had been under Constantinople, while maintaining the Russian tradition) have cooled. Earlier, our relations had been warmer. Some people who identify themselves as Russian parishioners and faithful children of the Russian Church have obeyed the decision of the Synod, have stopped attending the parishes under Constantinople and come to us. Though we never had close contacts with Greek churches, we did concelebrate at joint festal services. Now we have had to stop concelebration. Clearly, we don’t take part in the events organized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople here, although they have an active metropolitan in Stockholm. In September, Patriarch Bartholomew visited Sweden; he assembled all the bishops and clergy except for the Russians, of course. But it became known that, apart from one respected Catholic cardinal, neither the Romanian nor Serbian hierarchy living in Sweden deemed it possible to concelebrate with the primate of the Church of Constantinople.
—And, in my view, even for outside observers this tragic division damages the prestige of the Orthodox…
—Of course, we worry, and these circumstances hamper our efforts. It should be added that our official relations with the Lutheran Church of Sweden were broken off too. Whenever we turn to them for support and help with premises, they remind us about the resolution of our “higher-ups”—the decisions made in Moscow. They say: “You are barking up the wrong tree. Appeal to your co-religionists because the ROC is the richest Church in the world.” These are the words of a Church of Sweden bishop. I try to explain to them that Moscow has set its own goals, which are no less important and need funding as well. But they reply that if the ROC has severed the ties with the Church of Sweden at the highest level, what do we want from them in Stockholm? Of course, these words are understandable. It is good they have been providing space for our parish free of charge for so many years. We must give the Europeans credit for their civility and culture. After all, since the beginning of the new Church schism we have lost some friends, though we had never had many.
—Have the local Ukrainians left you as well?
—No, they haven’t. Most of them go to us, but more “pro-European” ones attend the Holy Transfiguration parish. But our Ukrainian parishioners hold a wide range of views as to how to develop Ukraine and build the relations with Russia. In the Church all this political discord is neutralized. Above all else, we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and as Christians we speak the same language.
We had the excellent idea of celebrating national holidays associated with our cultures together, all the more so since the calendar gives us many occasions for celebration. For example, on the Synaxis of All the Saints of Belarus our Belarusian parishioners gather together, offering a Belarusian meal and songs to everyone. Ukrainians and Russians might do the same. People are interested in such sort of things, but since we have a small room it is hard for us to organize anything. If the problem with our space is settled within next few months, then, I think, we will be able to return to this idea.
Our parish is in a rather disastrous state now, due to the lack of donors and funds to cover the leasing costs for new premises, and we have found nothing to date anyway. Every Thursday we serve the Akathist hymn to St. Sergius in the hope that the wonderworker of Radonezh will help us in this difficult situation, when our parish may well find itself in the street.